What Is Kirtan?

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Ram Dass, one of America’s most beloved spiritual figures and author of many best-selling books, including the classic Be Here Now, describes the power and beauty of devotional chanting, known in Sanskrit as kirtan.

By Ram Dass

The Names of God or praises of God can be sung as well as spoken. Often, when your heart wells up, singing alone expresses the fullness of your love for God. As you sing the Name repeatedly, the rhythm and melody fan your emotions. If this ecstasy is heightened, distinctions begin to fall away until only love, only the beloved, remain.

Kirtan, the singing of mantra, is an old and revered technique used in India and other parts of Asia. While kirtan uses music as a vehicle, aesthetics or musical ability are not the main concern. The ability to sing beautifully is enjoyable, but not necessary. What matters is singing from the heart. In India, it is often the old man who sings last, with no teeth, a raspy voice, and hacking cough, who blows everyone away, because he knows to whom he is singing, and the beauty of his contact with God is moving and powerful.

Kirtan, like any other devotional practice, can be done from any state of mind or level of evolution. By mere persistence, it leads to deeper levels of opening and understanding. Whatever space you start from, if you persist in kirtan, the space will change. You may want to get high, but find yourself getting bored. You may want to “feel devotional.” If you allow each experience to arise and pass, making space for new experiences to come from within, you will open to the power that comes from singing the Names of God.

If you are blissful, be blissful and sing. If you are bored, be bored and sing. Just keep offering your experiences into the fire of the Name, and it will guide you through them all.

When you are in love with God, the very sound of the Name brings great joy. It is said that “in its highest aspect, Divine Love is nothing less than the immortal bliss of liberation.” To open fully to kirtan, to the singing of the divine Name, is to know this sweetest form of bliss.